BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Making a statement

Vernon council is correct to acknowledge traditional indigenous territory

Just as Vernon is celebrating its 125th birthday, there’s growing understanding that the last century hasn’t always been great for some of the neighbours.

On Monday, council directed city staff to bring back a policy that would possibly see traditional indigenous lands recognized at the beginning of council meetings or in another form.

“The City of Vernon can be a leader in educating the general population about our history,” said Coun. Juliette Cunningham.

Now in some ways, Vernon is late to the game as some jurisdictions have been doing this for years.

In the case of the Vernon School District, board meetings always begin with an acknowledgement that the district operates within the unceded lands of the Okanagan people. At the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District, they recognize the Shuswap people.

Now making such a statement isn’t about making non-natives feel guilty or bad about what they have. It’s simply a way of creating awareness that development of our communities occurred while indigenous people were forced to give up their way of life and shoved on to small tracts of land. Children were dragged from their parents and sent to residential schools. Families often never recovered.

At no point have the Okanagan or Splatsin bands signed treaties with the federal government, and title and rights remains an outstanding issue that prevents both bands from accessing the financial resources they need to create jobs, build homes and provide vital services.

There will be those who point out that reading a statement of territorial recognition won’t change anything and the vast challenges facing First Nations won’t suddenly disappear. And that is absolutely correct. But what may happen is that people of all backgrounds may think about the origins of our country and specifically our region.

With that knowledge, perhaps local community leaders and residents will start to see that addressing titles and rights isn’t just an indigenous issue but something that impacts all of us. If there is certainty for First Nations communities, they can expand economically, which has a spinoff for businesses in the surrounding area.

The federal and provincial governments can then be pressured to sit down at the table and begin negotiations with local bands. For the most part, talks have languished, including the colonial claim which covers much of modern-day Vernon. The Commonage claim has also been sitting on a shelf, gathering dust.

Now it should be pointed out that the now former Liberal provincial government also used to make statements about indigenous territory. At virtually every press conference, an MLA or cabinet minister would go out of their way to mention the local band or nation. But it often seemed like rhetoric as government policies often created obstacles for First Nations. It will be interesting to see if the new NDP/Green coalition actually goes beyond words and takes concrete steps.

Obviously, there will be those who accuse Vernon council of political correctness but it’s not pandering to acknowledge the truth. If anything, it’s a sign of compassion and understanding.

I have written this column in the unceded territory of the Okanagan people.